As a young single mom of three, Cora Tsouflidou took a risk that has paid off big time. With a breakfast restaurant chain spread across Canada, her business plan to trust her gut has served her – and her patrons – well.
When you’re sitting in one of the 100 Cora’s restaurants that stretch across Canada and indulging in the kind of breakfast you’d never make at home – perhaps a tender spinach-cheddar crepe with real Quebec maple syrup or silky eggs benedict accompanied by a mountain of fresh, artfully hand-cut star fruit, kiwi and pineapple and entire branches of grapes – you’re thinking, What a clever concept.
There you are, ensconced in plaid upholstery, surrounded by homey wallpaper, borders of fruit bowls and watched over by folk-art chickens roosting in wooden coops, as though you’re in the country kitchen of a sweet old granny. And yet you’re eating a meal that takes Grandma’s cooking to sophisticated urban heights, complete with the latest health trends of mountains of fresh fruit and nothing deep-fried. You know there’s probably a faceless marketing company behind it all but, you think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if, at its heart, the Cora chain really had a modern, forward-thinking Québécois grandmère named Cora?
It does. When you walk into her comfortable bungalow in Prevost, Que., in the heart of the Laurentians, you’re greeted by the identical ambience that you find in her restaurants – plaid wallpaper, various poultry-themed decorations, a ceramic bunny. And greeting you with a warm and welcoming embrace is the Cora of your imagination, with the requisite spectacles, softly rounded physique and heavy Québécois accent. Cora, 60, is indeed a grandmother, proudly displaying photos of her five grandchildren on the mantel.
But Cora Mussely Tsouflidou is also one of the shrewdest entrepreneurs in Canada. Over the past 20 years, she has built a restaurant empire with annual revenues of more than $100 million. And she did it all herself.
“I so much don’t look like the corporate CEO of a huge company,” says Cora with a broad smile, settling herself at the large table in her sunny yellow kitchen between a frog planter and a chicken lamp. “I look more like a mother hen or like the farmwoman who makes the confiture. You know how many people come to the office saying they want to speak to Mr. Tsouflidou, thinking there’s a man behind it all?” She chuckles. “I don’t mind. As a woman, I started in the right place – behind the stove. And when I finally took off my apron, it was too late – I already had a chain of restaurants.”
Cora’s restaurants – called Chez Cora in Quebec – can now be found from St. John’s to Vancouver. There are plans to double the number of locations to 200 within five years and then to invade the colossal U.S. market.
The restaurant business is notoriously risky and prone to failure, which makes Cora’s accomplishments as a restaurateur, chef and business mogul all the more remarkable. Her recipe for success has all the wrong ingredients and none of the right ones: she never went to business school, never finished college, never took a cooking course, never even worked in a restaurant until the day she bought one. She used her own meagre savings, since she was too poor to qualify for a bank loan after her husband left her with three children to support. She never does deals unless both parties benefit. When her daughter’s marriage broke up two years ago, Cora not only kept her son-in-law, Yvan Coupal, as an employee but continues to have him, her daughter and the kids over for regular dinners and holidays.